How far can you fly? – Part II

It was 0730 local time and I was already sitting on my airplane. Claresholm Industrial airfield was still quiet, with only a handful of lights on around the field. Sun should not be up until 0840 or so, but I wanted to get the most out of the cold night temperatures. A short walk around the airplane as a pre-flight inspection revealed no problems.

It was still a dark, cold night. I turned on battery power and switched on the avionics so I could enter my flight plan on the GPS. The number “1172 nm” on the GPS screen was still daunting, but I had to rely on my calculations. We should make it.

GPS plan before flight

GPS flight plan before flight, showing the total range to my destination.

Right after this, I turned the engine on to taxi to the fuel pumps to fill up the tanks. As I was starting up, a Cessna 172 taxied by and I wondered where he would be going so early. Perhaps I am not the only one that wants to take advantage of the cold air.

Bad parking job on the fuel pumps, but I was close enough to top off the tanks. I now had about 80 gallons of fuel to burn.

Bad parking job on the fuel pumps, but I was close enough to top off the tanks. I now had about 80 gallons of fuel to burn.

Right after this, I called FSS to get my IFR clearance. They seemed a little surprised when announcing I was “cleared to CYKZ as filed”. Then I tuned 123.0 on COM1 (UNICOM frequency for this airfield) and placed my radio call for taxi. As expected, I got no answer. Radio was quiet, after that 172 had departed. As I was taxiing, the sky began getting a little brighter. It was now 0805 local time. Still more than half an hour before sunrise, and temperature was about -10 ºC. Good.

Shortly after a quick run-up of the engine (I did not want to spend any unnecessary fuel on the ground), I announced takeoff:

Claresholm radio, Bonanza N4527T is taking off, runway 21, departure to the east.

Once again, no reply. I lined up and throttled up. Rotated the airplane at about 65 knots and retracted the gear. I was on my way. I switched to COM2, which was already tuned to the Center frequency, and checked in with them.

Edmonton center, Bonanza N4527T with you, altitude 4500.

Bonanza N4527T, radar contact, cleared direct YXH, resume own navigation. Climb and maintain 13000.

Direct YXH, resume own navigation. Climb and maintain 13000, Bonanza 27T.

The Bonanza 27T was maintaining a nice climb of 1000 fpm until about 10000 feet. Then it began to slow down to about 700 fpm. I arrived at my planned altitude having used more fuel than planned, but not a lot. However, I had also used less distance, which was good. I set cruise power and carefuly leaned the mixture to peak EGT. This gave me a fuel flow of 9.0 gph, which was almost exactly the same as I had on my test flight.

Sunrise would be welcome, although it also meant temperatures would start increasing.

Sunrise would be welcome, although it also meant temperatures would start increasing.

Having arrived at YXH, my first waypoint, it was time for my first range check. TAS had settled on 147 knots, which was lower than my predicted 150, but winds were helping a bit, giving me 155 knots of ground speed. GPS predicted about 01h18m of fuel left on the tanks on arrival, which was pretty good.

Sun had came up, it was now a bright sunny day. On my next checkpoint, YYN, things were looking up. Temperature had increased a little bit and I was now flying at a higher density altitude. This made my TAS decreas further to 142 knots. But I was still getting some help from the winds, which had increased my ground speed to 160 knots. My GPS calculated about 1h32m of fuel left on arrival.

GPS fuel prediction at YYN.

GPS fuel prediction at YYN.

At my next checkpoint, VLN, my fuel flow had increased a little bit to 9.1 gph and my ground speed had reduced to 152 knots. I was now in a crosswind, so wind was not a great help. I still had about 1h10m of fuel left on arrival, according to the GPS. I was still hoping that the winds would behave like I saw on the forecast chart, and would start increasing in intensity and blowing on my tail as I flew through Canada.

And indeed, the forecasts were correct. At YDR, I now had tailwinds of 27 knots, increasing my ground speed to 172 and giving me a nice 1h41m of extra fuel. At this point, I was starting to wonder if I could go even further. My rule was to land with at least 30 minutes of fuel left, in case I had to go around or divert to another airport. This meant I had about 1h10 minutes of additional air time available!

At this point, I started looking at enroute charts. According to my original flight plan, I would be going around the northern shoreline of Lake Superior on the last legs of the flight. I did not want to attempt a single engine crossing of the lake without much fuel on board. But since I now had some extra fuel, I was considering the possibility of going straight across. I had to fly a bit farther to go straight across, but now I knew I had the fuel.

Original flight plan

New flight planOriginal and changed flight plan routes.

Still, I wasn’t going to commit to this until reaching Thunder Bay. Who knows, maybe wind could still throw me a surprise.

Reaching Thunder Bay, I tried to plot a route to Toronto, just to see if I could make it. I chose Buttonville Municipal (CYKZ) and entered the route into the GPS. It told me I would have 8 minutes of fuel left on the tanks, if I decided to go there. This was on my mind: Hmmmm… GPS does not take into account that I will have to descend, and during that bit of the flight I will use much less fuel. Maybe I could make it there! It would be a 1471 nm flight. At this point, I was sure I could cross Lake Superior without problems, but I had to tell something to ATC, as they would expect me to go around the northern shore. I placed the call, knowing that I had multiple alternates if I found I could not make it to Toronto:

Winnipeg control, Bonanza 27T, request destination change to Buttonville, CYKZ, via V300 airway to YMS.

Bonanza 27T, Winnipeg control, please repeat your new destination?

New destination is Charlie-Yankee-Kilo-Zulu, 27T.

Bonanza 27T, roger, standby.

Yes, even they could not believe it. After about 2 or 3 minutes, they came back on the radio:

Bonanza 27T, Winnipeg control.

Winnipeg control, Bonanza 27T, go ahead.

Bonanza 27T, cleared to CYKZ via V300, maintain 13000, squawk 3101.

Cleared to CYKZ via V300, 13000. Thank you, Bonanza 27T.

And there it was, I was cleared to Toronto. As I was crossing Lake Superior, the sun was setting again. I would be arriving at night, after having flown all day. At this point, I decided to do something about my just-enough-fuel-on-the-tank situation. I tried leaning the mixture for optimum EGT again and gained about 0.1 gph from that. Then I tried reducing RPM a little bit more to 2050. Not good. The engine did not like that, fuel consumption even went up a little. Then I decided to throttle down and reduce manifold pressure. That made it, I got less 0,7 gph and I now had 24 minutes of fuel on arrival, according to the GPS. If I accounted for the reduced consumption during descent, this would take me to my magical 30 minutes of reserve fuel I wanted. Wind was also helping a lot at this point, with a 46-knot tailwind giving me 187 knots of ground speed!

GPS fuel prediction over Lake Superior. Still about 550 nm to go...

GPS fuel prediction over Lake Superior. Still more than 400 nm to go…

The sun was now setting again. I had been flying for about 7h, and I was expecting to continue for 1 or 2 more! Temperatures would be going down now, which was also good news.

Sunset near Sault Saint Marie.

Sunset near Sault Saint Marie.

I was now over Lake Huron and the wind started to reduce a little to 35-38 knots. Still a nice tailwaind, but this made my extra fuel come down to 19 minutes only. I was now doing 183 knots of ground speed which is still much faster than I had antecipated. Looking at the fuel gauge, it was now getting scarier. GPS still told me we could make it, but it was hard to believe. Looking at the remaining distance and then at the fuel gauges…

Then I realized that this was going to be very close, so I had to plan on what to do with the fuel tanks. For now, I was getting nervous and simply switching fuel tanks all the time to make sure the aircraft was balanced. But if I was going to arrive with very little fuel, I knew I could just run out of fuel on the selected tank just as I was coming in on short final. I wanted to avoid that, so I decided to run my right tank almost until it was completely empty (at least according to the fuel gauge). I was going to risk running out of one tank while I still had altitude below me, so I could guarantee that I would not run out on final. The final fuel tank switch happened at little more than 100 nm from my destination.

Fuel gauges when I last switched tanks. Right tank was almost empty, I hoped what was left on the left tank would be enough to take me to Toronto safely.

Fuel gauges when I last switched tanks. Right tank was almost empty, I hoped what was left on the left tank would be enough to take me to Toronto safely.

It was time to descend, which was a relief. It meant that from now on, I could glide my way down, using little fuel. As expected, during descent, the GPS was updating its predictions to tell me my endurance was increasing.

Then came the bad news. Active runway at Buttonville Municipal was runway 33, which is almost opposite the direction I was coming from. That meant I would have to fly past the airport and then turn around for the landing. Well, such is life, nothing I can do now, other than hope the remaining fuel is enough in case I need to perform a missed approach. ATIS was reporting 10 miles visibility with snow and a crosswind at Buttonville. At least it would not be a blind landing!

I requested the GPS approach from the controller and selected that on my GPS unit. It guided me down beautifully, lining me up on final approach about 3 nm out. Fuel gauges indicated I was almost out of fuel. I was still running on the left tank, and I knew I would have to switch to the right one and use the last fumes on that if I needed to perform a missed approach. But it didn’t look like it was going to happen.

I had kept my gear and flaps up to keep the drag down and save fuel. I leveled out about 1.5 nm out, throttle closed, gear down, flaps down. Speed came right down from about 120 knots to 70 knots. Then I continued the approach, glancing at my fuel flow. It was not too bad, about 7 gph.

Then I landed, I was down. From now on, all I had to do was taxi back to parking and avoid the humiliation of stopping in the middle of a taxiway, out of fuel. But that did not happen. I parked 27T, shut it down and remained in the cockpit for about 5 minutes, thinking of what I had just done.

I had flow about 9h straight, 1470 nm, which is about 500 nm more than the standard range of the Beech Bonanza A36. Still, I had 2 gallons of fuel left, which would have been enough (just…) for a second approach, if I needed to go around. I certainly benefited from almost ideal conditions: tailwinds, cold temperatures, no traffic, no weather deviations… but still, it felt like a great achievement.

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